AFC Divisional Round Preview
by Scott Kacsmar
The Divisional Round was not always the greatest weekend of the NFL year, but the upsets have been coming steadily in the last decade. The 2004 season was the last time all four first-round bye teams advanced to the Conference Championship.
The AFC offers familiar faces as the Colts and Chargers will attempt to derail another Tom Brady-Peyton Manning matchup. Seemingly every time people expect the AFC to come down to those two -- look back at 2005, 2007 and 2012 for starters -- at least one team crashes the party. Baltimore shocked us all last season with a win in Denver, which ranked No. 2 in DVOA just like the Broncos do this season with the same 13-3 record. The AFC's No. 1 seed has won just two of the 23 Super Bowls since 1990 and has gone one-and-done 10 times. By comparison, the NFC's top seed has seven championships and four early exits in that time.
New England has played a dozen close games this season, but the Colts are not a team anyone wants to see in a tight game with (Andrew) Luck on their side. Yet much like 2007, a double-digit underdog from San Diego has the best chance to prevent Brady-Manning XV.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the Football Outsiders stats, they are explained at the bottom of the page. Scroll down or click this link. Any game charting data that appears with an asterisk appears courtesy of the ESPN Stats & Information Group and is complete through the end of the season. Other game charting data (such as defensive back coverage stats) is roughly 85 percent complete. Please remember that all stats represent regular season only except for WEIGHTED DVOA, which includes Wild Card weekend.
Indianapolis at New England
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Although the Patriots and Colts have met every single year since 2003 -- and will meet in both 2014 and 2015, marking a record-tying 13-year streak as a non-divisional rivalry -- these teams haven't met in the playoffs since their epic showdown in the 2006 AFC Championship. Only six players (three on each team) from that classic will be active on Saturday night, so the rivalry has changed quite a bit. Even if the weather tried to recreate an old scene -- and it won't, the forecast is for low 40s and rain -- both teams have come a long way from the snowy field in Foxboro for those 2003-04 playoff games won by the Patriots.
How does Indianapolis respond after coming off the second-biggest comeback in NFL history? The Colts rank 29th in DVOA variance and there's no greater example of their inconsistency than following a 38-10 deficit with a 35-6 run to complete that incredible comeback against the Chiefs. There's no way of predicting what impact this will have on the rest of the postseason. After the 1992 Bills made the all-time comeback of 32 points against Houston, they went to Pittsburgh, a No. 1 seed, and easily won 24-3. Frank Reich was still the quarterback in place of an injured Jim Kelly, who did not return until the following week. On the other side of the coin, when the 2002 49ers made their 24-point comeback against the Giants, they fell flat on their faces in Tampa Bay, losing 31-6 against that dominant defense.
The matchup is still going to rise above everything. The Colts are no more a "team of destiny" than they are "emotionally spent" after last week -- although one could point to several letdown performances following a big comeback win by this team since last year. After erasing a 21-3 deficit to beat Green Bay in 2012, the Colts had a dreadful 35-9 loss in New York to a bad Jets team. After coming back to beat Seattle earlier this season, the Colts lost 19-9 in San Diego. The Colts came back from a 24-6 deficit to knock off Houston, but were dismantled, 38-8, at home by the Rams the next week. A 14-point comeback in Tennessee was followed by a 40-11 blowout loss in Arizona. Those four losses represent four of the five worst scoring outputs in the Andrew Luck era. The other game in the bottom five was last year's 24-9 loss in Baltimore in the playoffs, which came one week after a big win over Houston in Chuck Pagano's emotional return to the sideline.
A bad loss in New England would seem to fit the pattern well for the Colts, who have beaten three of the remaining teams in the playoffs. The Patriots offer a difficult road test. New England actually led the league in DVOA variance, which factors in offense, defense and special teams. Their units may have gone through a lot of ebb and flow, but no team has put in a more consistent overall performance this season than the Patriots.
The Patriots are 8-0 at home this season. Teams with an 8-0 record at home are 43-17 (.717) at home in the postseason since 1978. Only 12 of those teams (27.9 percent of total) have gone one-and-done at home in the playoffs, but that does include both the 2009 and 2010 Patriots as well as the 2013 Bengals.
No matter the deficit, neither team will ever believe they are out of the game until 60 minutes are up. This matchup features the two quarterbacks with the best records in NFL history at game-winning drive opportunities: Andrew Luck (11-5) and Tom Brady (43-29). The Patriots led the league with five fourth-quarter comebacks while the Colts are an unfathomable 16-2 in games decided by one score since 2012.
WHEN THE COLTS HAVE THE BALL
As always, all eyes will be on Andrew Luck. He faces a lot of pressure and takes many hits, sometimes more of his own doing than his offensive line. (Luck was knocked down after a pass 87 times this year, 25 more than any other passer.) He's still young and will make dangerous throws that can be intercepted. But with the ball in his hands, he has the ability to make plays with his arm or legs that few quarterbacks are capable of making. Luck also does the little things well. He's already mastered the no-huddle offense and can run the hurry-up attack with the best of them. The Colts have the fewest offensive penalties in the league. His hard count is another benefit and he's been very effective overall at drawing penalties in his career. Last season he led all quarterbacks with 16.5 expected points added on penalties, according to ESPN. This year he ranked third (12.6) behind only Joe Flacco (15.4) and Brady (12.8).
He's not Michael Jordan -- come on, Ryan Grigson -- but Luck is a rare talent and capable of pulling off this upset. If there's anything in common between this game and past Colts-Patriots meetings, it's that the Indianapolis quarterback must do more to overcome his team's deficiencies. Brady comes into this game having thrown for just 294 yards and two touchdowns in the last eight quarters thanks to a strong running game. That production led to two wins with a comfortable 75-27 scoring margin. Luck threw for 314 yards and three touchdowns on his final six drives of the game against Kansas City and the Colts needed every single yard.
While Luck must have a big game, the Colts should also feature the run, especially in the red zone where they rank first in DVOA (56.0%) compared to 25th (17.5%) for New England's run defense. They may be well served to mix in a tendency breaker like the zone-read option that Luck used to convert a fourth down last week on the keeper. Cam Newton gave the Patriots fits with his mobility and Luck is that same class of athlete. Any play that features him running instead of Trent Richardson, who fumbled on his only touch against Kansas City, is a good idea. Donald Brown (No. 2 in rushing DVOA and success rate) has to play well and may find some favorable matchups right through the heart of the defense. The Colts run the ball up the middle/guard 65 percent of the time (league average: 54 percent) and the Patriots rank 31st in Adjusted Line Yards against such runs. The Patriots are also dead last in the league at stuffing runs for a loss or no gain.
New England's defense has understandably declined thanks to injuries during the season. The Patriots ranked 12th (-5.9% DVOA) through eight games, but in the second half of the season they are only 28th (14.4% DVOA). Not only has stalwart Vince Wilfork been out for three-quarters of the season, but the Patriots also lost defensive tackle Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo. If those weren't enough losses in the center of the defense, inside linebacker Brandon Spikes just went on injured reserve this week.
With a vulnerable middle, the Patriots have not been creating big plays like in past years. Turnovers are always hard to predict, but they have favored the Colts this season. The Colts had a league-low 14 giveaways, though of course they turned it over four times to the Chiefs last week. However, while we are so used to seeing the Patriots play a bend-but-don't-break defense that gets a lot of takeaways, they only had 29 takeaways in 2013. That's a relatively small amount that falls in line with what have clearly been the weakest Belichick teams in New England, including 2002 (29), 2009 (28), 2000 (23), 2008 (22) and 2005 (18). Those five teams combined for one playoff win and only two playoff appearances.
Since 2001, the Patriots are 69-2 (.972) at home when winning the turnover battle. Luck cannot afford another three-pick game. Much is made about his ability to make up for a mistake. In his 2011 season at Stanford, Luck threw 10 interceptions and on the 10 ensuing drives, he led his offense to seven touchdowns. I looked at his numbers on the next drive (when applicable) after an interception in his NFL career. Based on a sample of 26 drives, Luck has completed 60-of-105 passes for 832 yards, four touchdowns, two interceptions, two lost fumbles, 43.1 yards per drive and 2.50 points per drive. So he has scored at a higher rate than usual, but keep in mind he was at 2.13 points per drive before Saturday's game where he followed up two interceptions with two touchdown drives.
Ultimately, Luck's led seven touchdown drives after 26 of his interceptions that featured a response drive.
Luck had three interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) in last year's 59-24 loss in New England, but that game will not have any bearing on Saturday. At best, only half of the 44 starters in that game will play a significant role this week, and that game was actually Aqib Talib's New England debut. He had a pick-six on a horrible throw by Luck, but also was burned by T.Y. Hilton for two touchdowns.
How the Patriots choose to defend Hilton is crucial to this matchup. Talib started the season strong, earning praise for his defense against Atlanta's receivers and New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham. His physical play suits the referee's "we're going to let them play in the playoffs" style, but he has struggled since returning from injury. His Success Rate for the season is 55 percent, but it's below 40 percent since Week 11. The Patriots may be better served putting Talib on tight end Coby Fleener and using the likes of the improving Logan Ryan (6.3 yards per pass compared to 8.1 for Talib) and Alfonzo Dennard (50 percent Success Rate) on Hilton.
Whatever the Patriots do, it has to be better than the Chiefs, who allowed Hilton a lot of free space to gain 224 yards and two touchdowns. Belichick's known for taking away what a team does best on offense. These days, a lot of teams have a great wide receiver. The Patriots rank a mediocre 15th in DVOA against No. 1 wide receivers and 28th against No. 2 wide receivers. Six players have had 100-yard receiving games against the Patriots, though the Falcons and Browns had two each, including their tight ends. Hilton may still get his yards, but it won't be like last week and one of the youngsters -- big-play threat Da'Rick Rogers or safety blanket Griff Whalen -- must step up for Luck.
If the pass protection is adequate enough, Luck should play well in this game. The Patriots do rank No. 8 in Adjusted Sack Rate, but they must avoid the big blitz. No defense allows more yards per play (10.1) or has a lower Success Rate (42 percent) when rushing six or more than the Patriots*.
WHEN THE PATRIOTS HAVE THE BALL
This is the matchup most likely to dictate the flow of the game. For as much talk as there's been about the lack of familiar faces Brady has to throw to, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels continues to throw the kitchen sink at defenses by mixing up formations. From personally game-charting the Patriots a few times this season, it's astonishing how many looks they show. Some teams are content with a simple slot-right formation using 11 personnel on a whole drive, but the Patriots will split out fullback James Develin wide, put tight end Michael Hoomanawanui in the slot, empty the backfield, use I-formation, bring Matt Slater in tight at the goal line -- and that all could just be one drive.
The Colts are dead last in variance on defense, so good luck predicting what they will do in this game. The splits for this game favor an early New England lead. The Patriots are 11th in first-half offensive DVOA compared to 24th for the Colts defense, while the Colts are only 17th in first-half offense (New England's defense is 10th). Both offenses improve after halftime adjustments, but the Patriots rank second while the Colts are seventh. Then again, New England's defense is 25th in the second half. The Patriots are seventh in the red zone where the Colts are only 20th on defense. The pass is more advantageous for New England here, ranked ninth on offense against the Colts' 20th-ranked red-zone pass defense.
The running game (sixth in DVOA) has been big for New England all year including a season-high 267 rushing yards in Week 17. No matter which back gets the workload, they must attack Indianapolis' 22nd-ranked run defense. The biggest disparity comes on first down: Patriots are No. 3 (18.3% DVOA) and the Colts are No. 27 (2.8% DVOA). That should help the Patriots stay ahead of the down-and-distance situations and help keep Brady upright. He is missing tackle Sebastian Vollmer and has been sacked 40 times this season. Brady's 6.0 sack percentage is the second worst of his career.
Mobility was a huge factor in the success Alex Smith had against the Colts. Other mobile quarterbacks like Terrelle Pryor and Russell Wilson have also caused problems for the Colts, but there's no concern of that with Brady. What Brady does is get rid of the ball quickly and control the tempo of the game, negating a lot of the rush. Robert Mathis generates so much of his team's pass rush, but Brady has always done a good job of stepping up to limit an edge rusher's effectiveness. Generally, the rule has been to not blitz Brady much and show him different looks, but the Colts have been successful with a six-man pressure this season, producing a 73% Success Rate and allowing 3.2 yards per play (ranked third in the NFL)*.
Forcing the Patriots into third down is very important for the Colts, because it's one of the few areas where their defense has an advantage. The Patriots rank 23rd compared to ninth for the Colts. That advantage holds for short and medium situations, but the teams are more evenly matched on third-and-long. Third down is where Mathis really could make his impact on the game.
When it comes to the receivers, Brady is clearly favoring Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola right now. They will work the slot and dominate the underneath coverage. They are not deep threats, but the Colts had a heck of a time covering Dwayne Bowe on slants last week. The Colts are also fairly banged up at cornerback and Greg Toler is out. This means more of ex-Patriot Darius Butler (83rd in success rate) -- a bad thing for Indianapolis. Kenbrell Thompkins is the receiver to worry about on the outside, but even he has been limited in the offense by injury and this shift to the slot receivers. Shane Vereen has been prolific at times with 47 receptions, though he's only had seven catches in the last three games combined (two for scores).
One positive for the Colts, of course, is that Rob Gronkowski is out for the season. Brady has just 14 completions to tight ends not named Gronkowski. It's not like Hoomanawanui should be left uncovered, but this offense has clearly not tried to implement a receiving weapon at tight end in light of the players missing at the position. The range at which this offense uses the whole field is not that great, but even if the Colts limit the yards after catch for Edelman and Amendola, the Patriots are content with running the ball and rank No. 1 in Adjusted Line Yards (4.63).
Many are probably skeptical of how the Patriots offense ranks second in weighted DVOA when Gronkowski's missed so much time. He's clearly the most important player on offense after Brady, though many faces have come and gone for the Patriots throughout the season. Here's a review of how the Patriots have fared on offense with and without Gronkowski:
|New England's Offensive DVOA by Week|
|Split||Off DVOA||Rank||Pass DVOA||Rank||Rush DVOA||Rank|
|Weeks 1-6 (No Gronk)||-2.3%||14||9.6%||15||-10.6%||20|
|Weeks 7-14 (Gronk'd)||27.5%||2||39.7%||5||14.8%||3|
|Weeks 15-17 (No Gronk)||27.9%||3||39.9%||2||21.1%||4|
Surprisingly, the Patriots have done well against solid defenses in the last three games without Gronkowski. New England's offense may not be ready for a shootout in Denver or be able to penetrate a tough NFC defense, but for this week at home, the Colts are about as favorable a draw as the Patriots could ask for.
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The mediocre Colts special teams did a fine job against Kansas City's league-leading special teams last week. Now they'll face the Patriots, who rank No. 2 (6.7% DVOA) and had the most FG/XP value (+11.5 expected points) in the league. Stephen Gostkowski has had the best season of his career, converting 38-of-41 (92.7 percent) field goals, including 5-of-6 from 50-plus yards. There's really nothing predictive about a muffed punt (for the punting team, anyway) or onside kick recovery (poor Browns), but special teams have helped the Patriots pull out some close games this season.
New England likes to use key offensive players on returns, such as Edelman on punts and Blount on kick returns. Edelman had a 68-yard punt return touchdown against the Colts last year. Indianapolis recently demoted speedy receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey to special teams where he was having an impact, but he will miss the game with an injury. Perhaps that's the only true reason they signed former New England wide receiver Deion Branch this week. Yeah, there's no gamesmanship there at all.
Speaking of ex-Patriots, Adam Vinatieri has probably spent the week dreaming of kicking another game-winning field goal in Foxboro in the playoffs, but this time for the Colts.
The Colts can definitely win this game with another late drive or they could lose by 21 points. In fact, those are probably the two most likely outcomes. While the faces keep changing in New England, the performance remains fairly consistent and all three phases of the game should play well on Saturday. The Colts essentially need Luck to play close to flawless since few capitalize better on mistakes than Brady and Belichick.
I would not be surprised to see this play out like so many past Colts-Patriots games where the Patriots dominate early and the Colts try a furious comeback. That even happened in 2011 when Dan Orlovsky was the quarterback of a 0-11 team. If the game is late and close, both offenses rank in the top six, but the Patriots are 27th on defense compared to sixth for Indianapolis.
I hate to recycle a decade-old narrative, but the young Colts need more balance to get past a team like New England, especially on the road. Then again, stronger and healthier New England teams have lost at home in the postseason to Joe Flacco and Mark Sanchez, so this definitely isn't 2003-04 anymore, even if Deion Branch and Adam Vinatieri are names we're talking about this week.
San Diego at Denver
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This will be the 62nd time since 1970 that division rivals meet for a third game in the postseason. The team with home-field advantage is 38-23 (.623). Denver had a record-breaking season, but notice practically all of those accomplishments were on the offensive side of the ball. If NFL history has taught us anything about pass-happy offensive juggernauts in the playoffs, it's that the upset special is at play here with a hot San Diego team peaking at the right time on both sides of the ball. Let's see how nervous I can make Denver fans about this matchup (and postseason in general).
Peyton Manning broke the NFL record with 5,477 passing yards. The leader in passing yardage is 0-47 in terms of winning a Super Bowl that season. Pass-happy attacks tend to flame out in the playoffs where the best defenses play, the weather may be unfavorable, and referees swallow their whistles. Just ask Eric Decker about that last point.
The Broncos set a record with 606 points scored. The 10 teams with the most points in NFL history have combined for one championship. That was won by the 1999 Rams, who had a great defense too, and needed to be bailed out by that defense in an 11-6 win over Tampa Bay in the NFC Championship. Manning is 79-0 in games he starts and finishes when his team allows fewer than 17 points, but does anyone see the Denver defense doing that even once this month? Denver finished the season on a high note, allowing 399 total points (19th in points per drive on defense), but the Texans and Raiders are not the level of competition in January. In fact, the Broncos' three losses are all to the remaining teams in the AFC playoffs.
Going back to last year, the Manning-led Broncos have struggled against teams with a winning record. They are 6-7 and have allowed an average of 27.1 points (ranked 18th). In all seven of the losses, including last year's grueling 38-35 playoff loss to Baltimore, the opponent scored at least 27 points. Denver scored at least 20, but it wasn't enough. To beat a good team, it's almost a guarantee the Broncos have to score 28-plus points. That's a bad formula for the playoffs.
Only three times this year has Denver been held under 31 points and two of those games were against San Diego, including a season-low 20 points in Week 15. Only the Chargers have held Denver under 400 yards this season, including a season-low 295 yards in Denver. This should not be ignored. Such tea leaves existed last season when the Ravens, despite a 34-17 loss in Week 15, forced Denver into a season-high seven three-and-out drives and held Manning to a season-low 208 passing yards. Baltimore enjoyed the return of some healthy defenders in the playoffs and the rest is history.
This season San Diego is that latest "team of destiny" after winning four straight games just to make the playoffs after a 5-7 start. Philip Rivers is having one of his best seasons (second to Manning in DYAR), the running game has come up big, and the defense has enjoyed some of its best performances in the last few weeks. About the only missing ingredient for a championship would be Antonio Gates announcing his plans to retire at the end of the year. There's much more pressure on Denver this week than there is n San Diego, which is coming off a big 27-10 win in Cincinnati. The Bengals were 8-0 at home and averaged 34.4 points per game there. San Diego held them to 10 points and generated a season-high four takeaways. The only team to score more points at home is Denver (39.5 PPG). San Diego has a league-high six wins over teams with a winning record and it would be foolish to discredit the familiarity coach Mike McCoy and defensive coordinator John Pagano have with Denver's offense.
When a No. 6 seed gets past the Wild Card round in recent history, it has been very dangerous. When the playoffs expanded in 1990, the AFC's No. 1 seed started 10-0 against the No. 6 seed, winning by an average margin of 19.1 points. Since the 2005 Steelers upset Manning's Colts, the No. 6 seed is 5-1 against the top seed with an average margin of victory of 10.4 points. Only Manning's 2009 Colts moved on with a 20-3 win over Baltimore. San Diego offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt was in Pittsburgh in 2005 when the Steelers went on the road and beat the Bengals, Colts, and Broncos in the playoffs.
There's another oddity that could haunt the Broncos. Denver has compiled a league-best 26-6 record in the last two regular seasons despite being minus-1 in turnover differential (minus-1 in 2012 and zero this season). This team is very shaky with ball security, especially fumbles. Even if you attribute it to bad fumble luck, they lose the ball too often. Manning has a career-worst 10 fumbles (six lost) this season, including one against San Diego. Despite what happened on Wild Card weekend, turnovers are usually very decisive in the playoffs.
Finally, the elephant in the room is Manning's 9-11 playoff record and eight one-and-done postseasons -- twice the amount of any other quarterback. I have written about those games in great detail in the past and will again in a new series about quarterbacks in the playoffs that we'll be running during the rest of the month.
For Manning in the postseason, it's really not a matter of worrying if he will play well, because he often has. It's the Murphy's Law that follows his teams where anything that can go wrong, will go wrong in the playoffs. A lot of that has followed him against the Chargers as well, which is detailed below. Manning's been one of the best quarterbacks in postseason history by every measure but his win-loss record. He's had a fourth-quarter lead in 11 straight playoff games, which is something no one else has ever done, but is just 6-5 in those games. Rahim Moore likely won't be on the field this week to let Eddie Royal beat him to blow another late lead, but that's the type of stuff that has haunted Manning in the postseason.
In games with a fourth-quarter lead since 2006, Manning is 87-6 (.935) in the regular season and 6-5 (.545) in the playoffs. The 87-6 includes a 46-6 (.885) record when protecting a one-score lead. Two of the playoff losses have been to San Diego.
WHEN THE CHARGERS HAVE THE BALL
The underdog strategy is to shorten the game with fewer possessions, which can be accomplished by a strong running game and short, high-percentage passing game. If both teams finish with single-digit possessions, San Diego's chances of winning are greater than if Denver gets 12-plus drives. The theory is that the better team (with home-field advantage) will have more chances to prove their superiority over a greater number of drives.
For San Diego, this is how they have played all season. Philip Rivers is only throwing a deep pass (15-plus yards) on a career-low 18.9 percent of his attempts this season. The offense leads the league in time of possession per drive (3:22), yards per drive (40.13), plays per drive (6.85) and fewest three-and-outs per drive (.148). Denver had 34 more possessions than San Diego (league-low 158). Part of that is on the defense's inability to get stops, but the Chargers are a very efficient offense and that has played a factor in their ability to hold Denver's offense under 400 yards by shortening the game. San Diego held the ball for over 38 minutes in both meetings this season.
One of the more annoying storylines this week is "Philip Rivers is 2-0 against Peyton Manning in the playoffs." While technically true, in the first meeting Rivers left the game after three quarters with a knee injury. Billy Volek led the game-winning drive for San Diego. The following year, the Chargers won in overtime in a game dominated by Darren Sproles and punter Mike Scifres. I just had the table this week on how of all playoff games since 2006, no winning quarterback had a lower Total QBR in comparison to his opponent than Rivers (25.3) had compared to Manning (75.4). Quarterback play did not decide that game.
Also, 2-0 means two games. That's sort of a small sample size.
Rivers' past triumphs over a Manning-led team have often been the result of a strong effort from the rest of his team and not so much the passing game. Rivers has led San Diego to at least 20 points in 15 of his 16 career starts against Denver. He will have to throw more than 16 passes this week, but the running game will be the focus again. Ryan Mathews has been missing practices with an ankle injury, but the Chargers still have a capable backfield with Danny Woodhead (dump-pass demigod) and Ronnie Brown. The offensive line is dealing with injuries to center Nick Hardwick (concussion) and tackle D.J. Fluker (ankle). Rookie Keenan Allen has been the savior of the receiving corps for San Diego and he scored two touchdowns in Denver. The Broncos should look to put Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (fifth in success rate among our charted cornerbacks) on him or Champ Bailey, who did not play in Week 15. Kayvon Webster is the player San Diego will likely look to target again.
The following table shows several areas where the Chargers have been considerably better than Denver's defense this year:
|San Diego's Key Areas|
|SD Offense||Statistic||DEN Defense||Rank Diff.|
|38.4% (4th)||Red-zone Pass DVOA||26.8% (27th)||23|
|25.2% (2nd)||1st Half DVOA||0.7% (17th)||15|
|64.9% (2nd)||3rd/4th-down Pass||40.0% (32nd)||30|
|46.2% (2nd)||3rd/4th-down All Plays||25.6% (29th)||27|
|22.0% (3rd)||3rd-and-short||3.9% (17th)||14|
|40.8% (4th)||3rd-and-medium||46.8% (31st)||27|
|106.5% (1st)||3rd-and-long||24.4% (21st)||20|
|4.04 (12th)||Adjusted Line Yards - MID/GUARD||2.91 (1st)||-11|
|5.51 (1st)||Adjusted Line Yards - LEFT END||3.93 (19th)||18|
The third-down matchup is frightening for Denver. The key to San Diego keeping Manning off the field will be to do a great job on third down, which the Chargers have done this season and in each distance situation. This is where not having Von Miller could really hurt the Broncos when someone has to rush the passer and make a play. Ex-Charger Shaun Phillips is not up to Miller's caliber. Here's a look at how the Broncos have done defensively with and without Miller this season:
|Denver's Defensive DVOA by Week|
|Split||Def DVOA||Rank||Pass DVOA||Rank||Rush DVOA||Rank|
|Weeks 1-6 (No Miller)||13.2%||29||30.9%||28||-17.4%||8|
|Weeks 7-16 (Miller Time)||-10.6%||8||-9.9%||8||-11.4%||8|
Defensive end Derek Wolfe also missed the Week 15 game and his playing status is questionable this week. Jack Del Rio has his work cut out for him, but any defensive game plan should be focused on stopping the run first and daring Rivers to beat the defense. If the Broncos are going to allow points anyway, they may as well do it quickly to give Manning more opportunities to answer instead of dying a slow death on the sidelines. Denver's best shot is coming up big in the red zone like in the first meeting this year. The Chargers do lead the league in field goals per drive (.215) and rank an average 16th in points per red-zone trip (4.78).
WHEN THE BRONCOS HAVE THE BALL
Peyton Manning's No. 1 offense can't possibly lose at home to San Diego's 32nd-ranked defense, right? Normally such a matchup would be the shortest section of the preview, but the Chargers already beat this team in Week 15. Was that a one-game fluke on a Thursday night or is it part of another team turning on its defense at the right time? When using weighted DVOA, the Chargers are still 28th on defense. If we only look at Weeks 13-17 when San Diego started playing better, the defense is ranked 16th. The San Diego defense did get Melvin Ingram back in Week 14. He had an impressive interception off Andy Dalton last week, but that kind of poor throw is not one Manning makes often.
In our premium database, we have 20 splits for down, distance and play type. The Denver offense wipes the floor with San Diego in all 20 splits. The closest it gets is Denver's third-and-long offense ranks fifth while San Diego's defense is 10th. Otherwise, 15 of the 20 splits have a ranking differential of at least 17.
No offense to San Diego -- okay, maybe a little -- but I can't buy that featuring players like Sean Lissemore, Jarret Johnson, Jahleel Addae and Richard Marshall suddenly makes this a defense capable of shutting down one of the best offenses in NFL history. The best hope for this defense is the Broncos get backed up into some poor starting field position, they have a slow start and San Diego's offense dominates the clock again, allowing the Chargers to only have to make four or five stops in the whole game. That's basically what happened last month.
This particular matchup is all about Denver, Manning's record-breaking season and the five skill players with double-digit touchdowns. Will they have a huge game or will San Diego's voodoo magic frustrate Manning again?
Defensive coordinator John Pagano has been with San Diego since 2002 and started coaching the linebackers in 2005. That season the Chargers ended Manning's bid for a perfect season at 13-0 with an upset in Indianapolis. In 2007, Manning threw a career-high six interceptions in San Diego and lost in the playoffs in 2007-08. In 2010, Manning was in the middle of one of the worst three-game stretches of his career when he threw four interceptions (two returned for touchdowns) against the Chargers in a 36-14 loss at home. Pagano has taken over as defensive coordinator since Manning's come to Denver. The Broncos are 3-1 in that time, but none of the games were comfortable for Manning's offense.
In 10 games against San Diego since 2005, Manning is 4-6 with 23 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. The high number of picks stands out with the Chargers able to get them in different fashions. Here's a breakdown of the 18 interceptions:
- Six tipped balls, including two screen passes, and half of them going off the hands of Manning's own receiver (two in the 2007 playoffs).
- Four bad throws or reads, including a diving Antonio Cromartie making Manning pay in 2007.
- Three picks on floaters after Manning was hit as he threw the ball, including the interception in Week 15 this year.
- Two miscommunication plays with a receiver, including a pick-six in San Diego last season.
- Two passes defined as a Hail Mary/desperation throw in the final minute of the game.
- One case of missed pass interference by Eric Weddle on a pick-six in 2010.
By any means necessary, the Chargers have gone through plenty of roster turnover, but they always seem to come away with Manning picks. They also get other unusual mistakes from this offense. In 2005, Manning took an intentional grounding penalty late in the fourth quarter that knocked the Colts out of field-goal range, trailing 19-17. Manning has only been penalized for grounding one time since. In the 2008 AFC Wild Card, the Colts could have won the game with a late conversion on third-and-2. Manning was in an empty backfield and rookie tight end Gijon Robinson forgot the snap count. You can see he was late to react and Manning was sacked by Tim Dobbins.
When does that ever happen? Maybe Manning should have just gone with a running play, but that's another area in which San Diego frustrates him: shutting down the run. Since 2005, Manning averages 43.2 passes per game and 311.4 passing yards per game against San Diego out of necessity. As I showed in Week 15, the three-worst games in terms of rushing support in Manning's career have all come against San Diego. Here's the rushing disparity (non-quarterback carries only) in each of his last 10 matchups with the Chargers:
|Peyton Manning's Team||San Diego|
|Date||Result||Carries||Yards||YPC||Run DVOA||Carries||Yards||YPC||Run DVOA|
|1/3/2009||SD, 23-17 (OT)||21||65||3.10||-11.6%||31||154||4.97||38.5%|
If San Diego can win the battle of the trenches again and slow down the tempo, then Sunday could be just another typical Chargers performance against a Manning-led team. So what can Denver do differently this time?
Wes Welker is expected to play his first game in over a month after suffering his second concussion of the season. He may have a bigger role in helping the dynamics of the offense more than any actual production. Welker's numbers were trending down with just 23 catches for 223 yards and one touchdown in his last five games. He had three catches for a season-low 21 yards in San Diego. After seeing all the concussions and intensity of last week's playoff action, cautiously watch Welker's ball security when he takes a hit again.
In Week 15, Andre Caldwell played well (led team with six catches for 59 yards and two touchdowns), but he did not just fill Welker's role. For some reason, the Broncos used Eric Decker in the slot for most of the game and he was fairly quiet with two catches for 42 yards. I think Decker has to be the main target this week after seeing how well Cincinnati's Marvin Jones (eight catches for 130 yards) attacked the Chargers last week. Richard Marshall (89th in success rate) is a cornerback Manning can take advantage of this week. Honestly, every major cornerback we have charted for San Diego has lousy metrics, but Marshall and Shareece Wright are the current starters. Demaryius Thomas needs to play well too, but San Diego knows how badly he beat them in the first meeting with three touchdowns. With Welker back in his slot position and a healthy Julius Thomas at tight end, this should look more like the Denver offense from earlier in the season.
While the defense gets rightfully criticized in Denver, the offense must do a better job of staying on the field and that starts with third down. In the two games this season, the offense is just 5-of-17 (29.4 percent) on third down against San Diego (47.9 percent in other 14 games).
Finally, the Broncos cannot let last year's Baltimore game beat them twice. If the offense is nursing a one-score lead in the final minutes again, it would be nice to see Manning attempt a pass or two instead of handing off to Ronnie Hillman (probably Knowshon Moreno this year) five times in a row. Do not give Rivers a chance to steal the win at the end. However, Manning cannot get overly aggressive and force a pass for an interception. He's only had two interceptions in his career (against Miami in 2000 and 2003) when leading by one score in the last 10 minutes of a game. In San Diego, he did complete two passes in a four-minute drill to help run out the clock.
Manning's lost four playoff games after having a lead in the last 40 seconds of the fourth quarter. More than anyone on the field, Manning should know the huge benefit of being able to run out the clock and end a game on your own terms.
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Both kickers, Matt Prater and Nick Novak, have been very good this year. Prater's 25-of-26 and has great range from a boost with the high altitude. Trindon Holliday is a dangerous return man with a score on a punt and kickoff this year, but he can be a double agent with his ball security. The Chargers are fairly mediocre across the board on special teams, though there is one area to really watch in this game and it's the one we never talk about.
San Diego punter Mike Scifres can be a weapon in this game. This season Scifres has 30 punts downed inside the 20 and only one touchback. Only Washington's Sav Rocca (26-0) had a better ratio. In the 2008 AFC Wild Card, Scifres had arguably the best punting effort in playoff history against Manning's Colts. His six punts averaged 52.7 yards and pinned Manning at his own 10, 19, 3, 7, 9 and 1. Last season in Denver, Scifres hit a 55-yard punt that pinned Manning at his own 2. Two plays later he took a rare sack for a safety. In Week 15 in Denver this year, Scifres pinned the offense at its own 6, 11 and 3 -- the last punt coming off Scifres bobbled the ball, but still delivered a great kick to make Manning have to drive 97 yards for a game-tying touchdown. Manning was intercepted.
Even the most prolific offense can struggle to produce when backed up so deep. According to Pro-Football-Reference, the Broncos score on 22 percent of their drives that start inside their own 15. That ranks 17th, or dead average. San Diego's offense actually scores on 60 percent of its drives when backed up that deep, the best rate in the league and nearly twice that of the second-ranked team.
Despite these teams ranking seventh and eighth in variance, of all four games this weekend, I think this is the most volatile in terms of the range of outcomes. Denver may really regret that Week 15 performance where a win would have sent the Chargers to 6-8 and likely out of the playoffs. Like Dante from Clerks, the Chargers aren't even supposed to be here, but they can win this game. The 9.5-point spread is absurd for a San Diego team that's lost by that margin only once all season.
It will be paramount for these teams to have a strong start. Denver cannot afford to fall behind big due to San Diego's ball-control ability. Should the Chargers fall behind by 10-14 points early, then that thought of playing without any pressure will dissipate quickly. This team that's a few plays away from being 13-4 right now is the same team that played tight at home against Kansas City's backups with everything on the line. The Chargers are not reliable, but they are very dangerous.
DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average) breaks down each play of the season and compares it to the NFL average based on situation and opponent. You'll find it explained further here. Since DVOA measures ability to score, a negative DVOA indicates a better defense and worse offense, and a positive DVOA indicates a better offense and worse defense.
SPECIAL TEAMS numbers are different; they represent value in points of extra field position gained compared to NFL average. Field goal rating represents points scored compared to average kicker at same distances. All special teams numbers are adjusted by weather and altitude; the total is then translated into DVOA so it can be compared to offense and defense. Those numbers are explained here.
Each team is listed with DVOA for offense and defense, total along with rush and pass, and rank among the 32 teams in parentheses. (If the DVOA values are difficult to understand, it is easy to just look at the ranks.) We also list red zone DVOA and WEIGHTED DVOA (WEI DVOA), which is based on a formula which drops the value of games early in the season to get a better idea of how teams are playing now (explained here).
Each team also gets a chart showing their performance this year, game-by-game, according to total DVOA. In addition to a line showing each game, another line shows the team's trend for the season, using a rolling average of the last five games. Note that even though the chart appears in the section for when each team has the ball, it represents total performance, not just offense.